BBB's Alexandra Schoenborn talks to Dr. Jeanie Austin, author of the recent book "Library Services and Incarceration: Recognizing Barriers, Strengthening Access"
This month, BBB’s program coordinator Alexandra Schoenborn talks to Dr. Jeanie Austin, library and information science researcher and jail and reentry services librarian, about their book Library Services and Incarceration: Recognizing Barriers, Strengthening Access.
AS: I found your book to be a comprehensive and up-to-date account of the issues that library information professionals encounter. What was your aim in writing it?
JA: Part of the time that I was getting my master’s, and throughout my PhD, I helped run a juvenile detention center library; we also got a grant to bring in underrepresented library school students and pair them with community centers. It’s important in this work to pair being an academic with being a practitioner; it’s easy to write about this subject without practicing it, since so little has been published. I published a few articles about library services, and when our department of Jail and Reentry Services at San Francisco Public Library was being designed, we called libraries nationwide to ask them what was working and what wasn’t.
AS: In the book, you discuss rehabilitative and punitive models of incarceration, both of which are deeply embedded in all aspects of the carceral system. Could you explain these models and how they affect library services for incarcerated people?
JA: In the history of publication in library and information science, there’s a widespread belief in the rehabilitation versus punishment model. Librarians fall at different places on that continuum, but ultimately, I think that that dichotomy doesn’t exist. In library work with people who are incarcerated, there is bibliotherapy or prescriptive reading—a therapeutic approach that might be seen as rehabilitative—and on the other end of the spectrum, there have been a few librarians who argue that library services need to be an extension of the prison, an ongoing form of punishment. This can, oddly, align with collection development, because the punishment becomes rehabilitation. And when people aren’t choosing to rehabilitate, they might get punished—they might get put in the hole or into more restrictive housing. So, that dichotomy is undone by the carrot-and-stick dynamic.
One alternative to this is to argue that people inside need access to books and information for the same reasons as those on the outside. There are always going to be facility restrictions, but even then there’s so much information that people can get access to. If you contextualize the experience of incarceration and consider the personal and systemic ramifications of mass incarceration over decades, then the concept of rehabilitation is very flawed. Certain behaviors happen due to the contexts in which people live, and the issues are ultimately systemic.
AS: You write: “Librarians and information professionals should critically reflect on whether or not they recreate narratives that normalize incarceration by focusing on how people’s information practices diverge from the various ways in which people use information to make meaning, foresee a future, construct selfhood, pass time, escape, fantasize, self-regulate, be entertained, and otherwise engage in the internal worlds that information access and reading provide in a society that is largely structured by literacy.” You also mention how the researchers Clark and MacCreaigh caution against the belief that the librarian is somehow saving people who are incarcerated. I think that’s also a tendency that one might fall into as a books-through-bars program. What might we do to resist that narrative?
JA: The “white savior” model permeates the history of professional librarianship in the United States. It’s related to racial belonging and racism and it’s very heavily classed. In an environment in which so much is dehumanizing, the availability of space in which to think your own thoughts unimpeded is critical. My department has run a reference-by-mail service modeled on a similar service at the New York Public Library. We constantly hear from patrons about the value of information, from things like “I’m planning my life outside” to “I’m in solitary confinement and the twenty pages of lyrics that you sent me is all that’s helping me keep my head together.” I think it’s difficult for people who don’t encounter people in confinement to really understand how brutal of an information environment it can be. But when you’re talking about two million people at any given time, any library either in or outside the prison will struggle to meet the demand.
AS: When we’re dealing with such a dehumanizing system, and with people experiencing profound isolation or trauma, how do we provide people with information and access to books in an appropriate manner?
JA: I have looked to books-through-bars groups for a long time for examples of how to do things well and as a testament to the fact that you can get materials inside. Many people don’t realize how possible it is, and that constitutes an additional, internalized barrier. The trauma of incarceration and the systems that shape it create an endless need that no one can satisfy individually, so we need to reduce that need or eliminate that need and put money into social support on the outside. We have to provide information that helps people who are not directly and negatively impacted by incarceration understand that they’re still connected to it, and that if they’re not working in collaboration with people who are incarcerated or in their mutual interest, then they’re benefitting from incarceration.
AS: Could you speak about censorship and library services to people who are incarcerated?
JA: Books have always been contentious inside, at least in the U.S.—that precedes the large-scale censorship happening now. However, I do think that because of their scale, censorship campaigns are influencing prison policy. Where entire prison systems like Pennsylvania have made attempts to say “no books coming in” and are now only allowing books from a central distribution center, these policies are also curtailing that human touch. And with mail digitization, you can’t even hold the same piece of paper that someone on the outside held.
AS: In your book, you write about the fact that because more resources are available online primarily or exclusively, it is often difficult for people who are incarcerated to access this information.
JA: A lot of things are born online and might never be in print. If you have regular internet access, you don’t have to think about that, but if you have to go somewhere for the internet, like the library, then that changes. In very few instances is there any internet access inside that’s not clandestine.
AS: You provide some very good examples of the exploitative practices that often occur in relation to access to entertainment and/or information, highlighting, for example, how a simple mobile game that would be free on the outside might cost a couple of dollars inside.
JA: This also has to be understood within the economy of incarcerated labor where a couple of dollars might be two days of work or more. If people who are incarcerated are spending a huge proportion of their income to access information and they can’t even guarantee that their sources provide access to the whole picture, that also creates an environment where white supremacist recruitment materials can thrive. It also creates an environment in which it’s much easier for conspiracy theories to spread unchallenged. We need a more robust information environment so that people have the tools that they need to think through the information that they can access.
Missouri is now implementing one of the harshest book policies that I’ve seen, which is that only incarcerated people can purchase the books, from specific vendors, so family members can’t buy books for them. Instead, they will have to put money on their commissary accounts and that almost always comes with a fee. New York has some better models. Public libraries are beholden to provide some kind of library services for incarcerated people, although that could come with a better budget to support the work. It makes New York distinct from other states where there’s no guaranteed access.
AS: Returning to censorship, you discuss the disturbing pattern of literature and information written by and about marginalized groups being more heavily censored.
JA: There have been instances where Toni Morrison’s work, for example, has been censored for description of rape, even though it’s historically contextualized and reminiscent of things that happened, if not a direct echo. In Washington State, a trans person was trying to get Trans Bodies Trans Selves, a self-care and medical guide, and the prison denied that access because they said that it would ‘out’ the trans person to people around them, which was a way of basically cutting somebody off from medical care and from their agency. Mein Kampf has got through prison systems while classics of Black literature haven’t. In some states, Black literature has been banned under the premise of its relevance to special threat groups, meaning assumed gang affiliation.
AS: What challenges have you encountered most often in your research around library services?
JA: In many instances, either entire prison systems or individual facilities have a shared budget, often from commissary sales income, that all the programs are competing for, placing them in tension with one another. Some of the earliest documents I’ve come across are concerned with librarians who were trying to investigate the federal system, such as this very nationalist quote from a 1911 report stating “it is a disgrace that a wealthy nation should limit the reading even of its prisoners to books that are filthy and in rags which are largely chance contributions by visitors.” In many instances, that would still be the condition of materials today.
I’ve talked to incarcerated people who have run letter-writing campaigns with their peers where they write to every public library within a hundred miles because they’re so desperate for books. One of the issues there is around things like requirements for the oversight of facilities. The American Correctional Associations’ standards for library services are minimal in terms of what they understand a library to be. In some states, there’s one person with a library degree who is in charge of all of the prison libraries across the state but doesn’t necessarily have to go into any of them—and that would meet qualifications. The American Library Association, as part of the work I am doing under the Expanding Information Access for Incarcerated People grant, is publishing a new set of standards for libraries inside—they haven’t been updated for more than thirty years. What’s great about that document is that it includes examples of people who work with incarcerated people talking about what actually went well. These new standards will be available in early 2024.
Dr. Jeanie Austin’s Library Services and Incarceration: Recognizing Barriers, Strengthening Access (2021) is published by ALA Neal-Schuman.
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